Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Quiet Earth

The Quiet Earth
Director: Geoff Murphy
Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith

It’s 6:11 in the morning. Suddenly there’s a flash of light. Something has happened. Zac Hobson (Lawrence) wakes up in his motel room and prepares for work. As he sets out on his day, however, he slowly discovers that everyone else is gone. Just… gone. No bodies, no nothing. Given that the film stars two other people, you can probably anticipate that Zac does not stay by himself the entire time. Indeed, he discovers two other survivors, and the three must work against their infighting in order to figure out what happened.

This is a science fiction film, to be sure, but it’s done on a very modest, meager scale. Sci-fi does not necessarily mean alien spaceship props and bizarre costumes and makeup. In fact, I rather think that when sci-fi is forced to be made without those trappings, it tends to produce a far more intellectually provocative product. The Quiet Earth asks the question: what would YOU do if you were the last human being on the planet?

The first half hour of the film richly answers that question. As Zac slowly realizes just how profound his solitude is, he runs the gamut of possible responses. At first, he is practical, trying to reach out to other possible survivors through a radio transmission. Then he giddily trades in his mess of a motel room for an upper class house, and starts breaking classic societal rules. Inevitably, he faces the depression of being trapped in his solitude. Lawrence’s performance is beyond reproach here. He convincingly takes us fluidly from high to low and back again, from crazy to rational. As the (seemingly) last man left on the planet, he puts in a towering show. I was reminded of Groundhog Day in this first half hour: As Bill Murray slowly realizes there are no consequences to his actions, he first takes advantage of this information by living the high life, then ultimately gets depressed due to the constant monotony and tries to take his life. I really wonder if there was any crossover between the two films, if Murray watched The Quiet Earth for inspiration, because the parallels are incredibly strong.

To me, that first third of the film is undoubtedly the strongest section. When Zac meets two other survivors, Joanne (Routledge) and Api (Smith), the narrative becomes slightly more prosaic. The three must work together, but there is infighting. A love triangle develops, which, apparently, is a necessity if there are three people left in the world. I found that to be more distracting that interesting. Api provides an interesting counterbalance to Zac, however. Api is part Aborigine and slightly dangerous – from the first time we meet him, he wreaks of violence and aggression, whereas Zac is a research scientist and rather meek and passive. It is not Api’s aggression that is important, more his position as, essentially, a societal outcast. Here is someone who did not like the rules that society imposed on him, and now, those rules have been removed. He will respond in a very different manner than someone like Zac, and how the two deal with one another is very interesting. Joanne is rather useless. Routledge’s performance is fine, but I saw no point in her other to provide the crux of the love triangle, which I thought felt tacked on.

Additionally, in the second half of the film, the narrative makes an attempt to explain why everyone suddenly disappeared, and why our three survivors survived. There’s some guff about the fabric of the universe and the charge of an electron changing. I rather wish they hadn’t done that. It was a far more intriguing film before everything was explained away in a nice neat manner.

The special effects of the film, though minimal, are important. Apparently, in post production, every semblance of background sound was erased from the footage. There are no birds chirping, no sound of a distant brook, no insects humming. There is nothing, save for the noise that our three survivors make themselves. That’s damned disconcerting, I must say, and gives the film a very creepy vibe. It fits, though. After all, The Quiet Earth should be, well, quiet.

The Quiet Earth is a very good, solid entry in the science fiction genre. It’s far more philosophical than action-packed, but I appreciate that (and tend to prefer it). It feels a bit like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, but that’s not a bad thing. I keep going back, however, to the first 30 minutes where Lawrence’s Zac Hobson is the only human being on the screen. He’s so good, the film is so good there, I almost wish he had never met Joanne or Api. It’s easily the strongest part of the film.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


  1. Agreed. While I'm hardly a proponent of remakes, this is a film that has a strong enough concept but is little enough known that I'd love to see someone tackle it with a real budget.

    So...did you get a strong Twilight Zone vibe in the first half?

    1. TOTALLY a Twilight Zone thing going on in the beginning! Even the rest of the film has a little bit of that feeling as well, but really, take the first 30 minutes, and it's easily a Zone episode.

      Good call on the remake idea - this could be a really awesome flick.